New Australian legislation forbids health staff in immigration detention to report substandard care

June 18, 2015

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From July 2015, under the new Australian Border Force Act 2015, contracted workers including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals face a prison sentence of up to two years for blowing the whistle on substandard medical care given to asylum seekers in detention centres. Since several years, Australia has been transferring asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australian waters to offshore detention centres on distant Pacific islands such as Nauru. 

According to a recent article in BMJ, “conditions in the immigration detention centres have been condemned as ‘appalling’ by healthcare workers, who have reported unhygienic and overcrowded accommodation in tents, substandard medical care, sexual and physical abuse of children, and mental health problems among asylum seekers subject to indefinite detention. The government’s own report conceded that conditions were harsh on the tropical islands, which have limited infrastructure and where detainees are at risk of diseases such as malaria.”

Doctors taking action

Doctors in Australia have taken action and are exerting pressure on the federal government to repeal the law. Among others, the Australian Medical Association passed an “urgency motion” at its national conference  in early June, requesting that the federal government review the Border Force Act as a matter of urgency. And in mid-June, an editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia encouraged doctors to write to their local MPs and also help turn public opinion by making their views known in as many forums as possible. In support, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Prof. Nicholas Talley, published an opinion piece on the case.

Ethical and legal conflict

Dr. David Berger, a district medical officer in Western Australia, argued in the BMJ that doctors were being gagged to avoid them making embarrassing revelations about how Australia was flouting its international humanitarian obligations and violating the United Nations Convention Against Torture. He calls on all people of conscience “to petition the Australian government to repeal this repressive legislation and to promote openness, accountability, and protection for whistle blowers everywhere.” Barri Phataford, co-founder of Doctors for Refugees and a GP in Sydney, said, “This policy is a fail on every level. Not only does it clearly compromise the safety and health of those in detention, it puts Australian registered doctors in an ethical and legal conflict.”

Update October 2016

Source: Australian doctors appeal to foreign doctors to boycott detention camps, Jill Margo, Australian Financial Review, 18 June 2015